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Death Benefits for Widow of California Prison Guard to be Recalculated

A prisoner stabbed 51-year-old California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) guard Gregory Thompson eight times in the neck, shoulder and arm. He was awarded 44% permanent disability for injuries to his person and psyche. He was medically demoted to an entry-level computer analyst position, but had a difficult relationship with his supervisor. After he was told he would not pass probation, he committed suicide.

His widow filed for special death benefits from the public employees' retirement system (PERS) and worker's compensation death benefits, which are determined by the Workers' Compensation Appeals Board (WCAB). The CDCR opposed her because the death was a suicide.

A WCAB hearing officer held there was an industrial cause for Thompson's death and awarded full workers' compensation death benefits of $250,000 and legal fees of $30,000. The DORC appealed to the WCAB which upheld the award. The CDCR filed a petition for review in the appellate court system.

The court of appeals noted that a peace officer PERS member qualifies for a special death benefit if the cause of death was industrial. The WCAB is to determine whether the cause was industrial, but may not award workers' compensation death benefit unless it is determined that PERS will not pay the special death benefit. If PERS pays the benefit, it must be deducted from the workers' compensation death benefit the WCAB awards, Labor Code § 4707.

Because this procedure was not followed, the court annulled the WCAB's decision and remanded the matter with instructions for the WCAB to join with the PERS Board as a defendant and calculate the coordinated death benefits within each board's purview. See: Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation v. Worker's Compensation Appeals Board, Cal.App. 3rd Dist., No. CO78345, (decided July 22, 2015).